Where: Mtwapa Island
Double: 12 USD
It’s one of these moments that are so remarkable that you are in fact looking at yourself. Mariam and I are in Mombasa staying at the Comfort Inn on the island Mtwapa. We are here to make a video feature on sex tourism on the beaches. We are now sitting in the Casaurina, a bar near the bridge across Mtwapa Creek. I am seated alone at a table a little bit in the back. My glass of Tusker is smiling at me. Mariam is on the toilet for a while now. Not for a call of nature, but with a specific mission, of which she believes it is the best to do that in the ladies. She is looking for a young prostitute. We would like to meet one to be the host in our video report. Mombasa is a good place to make a report on sex tourism. It’s not the first time I am here, and usually I am a bit shocked by how it actually looks like. It has many varieties, but always comes down to the offering of sexual services in return for financial or other favors. On the table next to me I can witness a common form of it in Mombasa. A grey haired lady in her late fifties is holding a young Kenyan who is in his early twenties. He’s wearing dreadlocks, and yellow sun glasses. The lady is whispering words in the ear of the young man. Her cigarette is pointing to the makuti roof of the bar. The boy smiles from behind his sun glasses. It’s never too dark to be cool it seems.
‘This is Stella,’ says Mariam, and pulls me out my observational state of mind. I have that often when seated alone somewhere. It‘s like another part of my brain takes over. Also in that state I get a lot of ideas. A young lady in a tight black top and nice smile takes the chair in front of me, and Mariam sits down next to me. It‘s almost like a job interview. Stella‘s eyes look joyful and energetic. We offer her a beer. She tells us that she is living from offering her services to the tourists on the beach. From the money she earns she is raising a child. She is willing to participate in our report, and we make an appointment for the next afternoon. We offer her 20 Euros as compensation. ‘Good,’ she says. ‘Then I can go home now to sleep.’ We shake hands, and then she is leaving with her beer. To give money to people you report on is a very sensitive matter for me. Being a journalist I principally refuse that, because it‘s not done to buy your interviews. When paying for it you can have somebody saying anything you like. Although after a few years in Africa I did some fine tuning to that principle. The story I used to tell is that my work mobilizes attention for Kenya as a whole, and for the inhabitants in particular, and that after a while money would automatically trickle down in their pockets. In The Netherlands that concept works out quite well, but in a Third World country other rules apply. It’s not sure if my work will be to the benefit of anybody at all. It just depends. In the case of Stella it’s hard to say, and how will she measure it did? What is for sure is that asking her for a report will take some of her time, in which she won’t be able to work. So offering compensation for that should stay well within the boundaries of journalistic ethics. Her child has to eat that day, if we film or not. Mariam and me drink some more beers, and return to the Comfort Inn early. The rooms are basic but adequate. The shower and the toilet are joined in a one small room. Happily the shower is not mounted exactly above the pot (that occurs with an alarming rate) so you don‘t have to squeeze when showering. On the ceiling of the room there is a generous fan, and if you switch it in the lowest gear it keeps sleeping comfortable without catching a cold. There is a mosquitoe net, which carries the usual holes from top until bottom. It‘s amazing by the way how these flying devils are able to find the illegal entrances, and bother you splendidly.
‘Everyday I wake up early to go to the beach to look for a white man.’ It’s the next morning and Mariam and me are on Mombasa‘s Serena Beach with Stella. While wandering across the sand we‘re doing the interview. ‘It’s hard,’ she says, and cautiously avoids the sea weed scattered across the shore. ‘Because we’re many girls here.’ Stella is dressed in tight white trousers, and another black top. She is smiling when she tells about her work. ‘On this beach there are many Germans and Italians. Especially Italians make you work hard.’ Stella is talking openly, and doesn’t look bothered at all. ‚You have to suck their dick, other want only massage. Some of them want to fuck me and my ass, but I don‘t do that.‘ Stella calculates she can make about 30 Euros a day. She‘s telling it in without any emotion. She seems to take it just as a job, and that’s what it is. Mariam is doing the interviews, and somehow I have the feeling Stella is comfortable with that. We continue the walk on the beach.
‘White men, they have the love,’ Stella assures Mariam. ‘And money,’ I interfere there. ‘African men don’t have money,’ Stella continues.’ She is lifting her shoulders a bit, and smiles forgivingly to the camera. ‘What if you have to choose between money or love?’ Mariam asks. Stella is reluctant to answer, but Mariam insists. ‘I think I would choose for the money,’ she admits. It sounds harsh, but understandable. From love only you cannot raise a child. Stella, like many girls and women in Kenya, is a single mother.
The sun is shining nicely on the white sands beach. The Indian ocean waves come and go, and the tourists wander by slowly. Our session with Stella is finished. Mariam and her are swimming now, and I am making general views of the beach and the tourists. It’s nice to see Mariam and Stella enjoying the warm ocean water. They laugh and throw water to each other, like they are tourists themselves. It gives me some thoughts. How bad can a life on the beach be? Tourists are wandering here, silently followed by Kenyans. There are many mixed couples, holding each other’s hands. Yes, it could be serious, that they have a love that lasts longer then the holiday allows. Mariam is finished swimming, and we do some interviews with the people on the beach. ‘I don’t come here for the ladies only,’ says a bald guy from France. ‘But I am not hiding. African girls are beautiful,’ he ads, and peeks briefly to Mariam. ‘The ladies don’t interest me,’ says an older man from Austria. ‘But I like to talk to the people here who are very friendly and welcoming.’ He’s staring at the waves that are coming, and retreating with their hissing voices. The crowns of the coconut trees are beckoning in the never ending breeze, only lapsed by birds that let the sun blink when they pass by. It’s not that time is standing still here. It’s more that it doesn’t matter. That’s maybe how so many people spend ages here. Take the guy from Austria who comes here for seventeen years now, and the seventeen years old boy on the beach who speaks Italian and German fluently. With Mariam we’re meeting a few older beach boys. You see them often with middle-aged and older ladies from outside. They often have dreadlocks and bracelets in red green and gold; the Rasta colors. Don‘t know why, but like Stella they‘re amazingly open.
‘Hey, how do you guys survive?‘ Mariam asks, while the camera is running. ‘We come here to sell small things to the tourists,’ one of them tells. ‘But our real interest is to marry a white lady, and move with her to Europe to find a job, and send money to our families here.’ This answer means I will have to film a single white lady on the beach. ‘Yes,’ confirms the other, sitting next to him. He has dreadlocks, and is wearing a Rasta colored cap. ‘Also we do sweet things with the mama Mzee. If you know what I mean. You know, love, love, darling, darling, and afterwards she will give me something.’ The Mama Mzee are the older ladies on the beach. ‘How do you get feelings to sleep with her?’ Mariam asks. ‘You drink,’ the first guys answers immediately. ‘You drink, and when you are super high, you see her as a young lady, and you give her what she needs.’ The other nods. ‘Also me I can do that, because I know where I am going.’ Drinking could work I imagine, but there comes a moment that you wake up sober, and you’re are faced with what you did. Also, how does a woman feel when she knows he needs to drink to get aroused? It makes me sad, and it confronts you with the choices people can make in a state of poverty.
We go back to Comfort Inn, and I am still thinking. Sleeping for Mariam and me this night is not easy, because there is a reggae evening in the bar next door. The music doesn’t stop, and it is exactly the type of reggae I don’t like. We have the appointment that Stella will come the next morning to collect her compensation. Since the money is finished after a few days, and I take the minibus to the nearest and only ATM from Barclay’s Bank on Mombasa‘s North Coast. Of course the machine that never fails, fails me now, and I am left with no money. There comes the forever question when traveling. How much money do you take on you? The more the better you would say, but in Kenya the crime rate is too high to carry heavy loads of cash. So you have to maintain a kind of balance, and with the ATM failing it ruptured. We called the bank to verify, and they assured that the malfunction was country wide, but that holders of local cards could still draw money. That was not re-assuring, but it gave a funny sight at the bank. Presumingly poor Kenyans still pulling Shillings, and presumingly rich tourists queuing, and hoping that the machine would start functioning. It’s amazing how patient you can be in these situations. In Uganda another day I learned that failing was normal, and you just had to try several times, since connections with foreign banks were unstable. There is some small money left to spend that day, but paying Stella was out of the question. With a bad feeling, and an empty wallet I returned to Comfort Inn. ‘We can borough money from the hotel,’ mentions Mariam. ‘At least today we can eat.’ So we did, and we had to ask Stella to come back the next day for her payment. We offered her a first installment, but she refused. ‘Let me just come back tomorrow,’ she said. Her eyes were not so happy anymore. I guess it happened often before that people don’t give money, and what we asked her to do was just small. That day we stayed mostly in the room in Comfort Inn, and we did with some walks to the forever beach. The 5 Euros we could borrow from the hotel was enough to buy some food. It’s amazing how fast you can loose a relative position of luxury and safety, and suddenly you are struggling just like many do in Kenya.
The next morning I go back to the ATM, which is now functioning. Stella is coming and gets her compensation. It’s like we became friends, and every time Mariam and I come back to Mombasa again, we talk about Stella who we never saw again. The video report we made was received well.